Posts filed under 'Martyrs'

1980: Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr , Muqtada al-Sadr’s father-in-law

Add comment April 9th, 2015 Headsman

Iraqi cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was hanged on this date in 1980 in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

One of the greatest Shia scholars of the 20th century, Sadr laid the groundwork for modern Islamic banking. During the ascendancy of Arab nationalism, Sadr wrote sharp critiques of the rival Cold War systems and helped to found the Islamic Dawa Party.*

As a Shia religious party, Al-Dawa stood starkly at odds with the Sunni-based and secular Ba’ath dictatorship — and Sadr faced state harassment throughout the 1970s. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, whose leadership explicitly took inspiration from Sadr, Baghdad eliminated Sadr fearing he might lead a similar uprising in Iraq’s Shia south. (Sadr’s sister Amina al-Sadr — known as Bint al-Huda — was also arrested and executed around the same time.)

And Saddam Hussein may have been quite right to fear this. The name Sadr, of course, will be familiar to any observer of contemporary Iraq — for Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr’s son-in-law Muqtada al-Sadr today holds sway in the south and in Baghdad’s Shia stronghold, Sadr City.

* Iraq’s president from 2006 to 2014, Nouri al-Maliki, represented the Dawa Party. He was known to show off to guests the ring that Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr attained his martyrdom.

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Feast Day of Saints Agape, Chionia, and Irene

Add comment April 3rd, 2015 Headsman

In honor of Good Friday (in 2015), we pay tribute today to the Diocletian-era Christian martyrs Agape, Chionia and Irene.

The three virgin sisters whose names mean Love, Purity, and Peace in Greek were not, per tradition, actually martyred all together. However, they do share an April 3 feast date.

They are said to have made their illicit faith conspicuous to the governor of Macedonia by refusing to eat meat that had been burned as a pagan sacrificial offering. Agape and Chionia suffered immediate martyrdom, while Irene escaped to the mountains only to be captured and burned later with her Christian books.

The remarkable medieval canoness and playwright Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim — by some reckonings the West’s first known dramatist since antiquity — made the .

An English translation of her 10th century play Dulcitius is available online here:

IRENA. You wretched Sisinnius! Do you not blush for your shameful defeat? Are you not ashamed that you could not overcome the resolution of a little child without resorting to force of arms?

SISINNIUS. I accept the shame gladly, since now I am sure of your death.

IRENA. To me my death means joy, but to you calamity. For your cruelty you will be damned in Tartarus. But I shall receive the martyr’s palm, and adorned with the crown of virginity, I shall enter the azure palace of the Eternal King, to Whom be glory and honour for ever and ever!

Bad Gandersheim‘s Roswitha Prize is awarded (nearly) annually in Hrosvita’s honor. It’s the oldest German literary laurel that’s conferred exclusively upon women.

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1555: Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St. David’s

Add comment March 30th, 2015 Headsman

The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar [sic]

by Ted Hughes

Burned by Bloody Mary‘s Men at Caermarthen

“If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.
 — His words on being chained to the stake.

Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”

The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.

An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.

So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.

But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.

When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.

Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.

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1531: Sikke Freriks, Menno Simons inspiration

Add comment March 20th, 2015 Headsman

Dutch artisan Sikke Freriks, beheaded on this date in 1531 in Leeuwarden‘s market, was the first Anabaptist put to death in that Friesland city.

While a minor milestone in the crowded history of Reformation martyrdoms, Freriks had a noteworthy posthumous effect: word of his heresy — adherence to adult, rather than infant, baptism — came to the ears of a Catholic priest, who later wrote that a man’s dying for this illicit doctrine led him to investigate it further.

To his amazement, the priest found no scriptural support for the established church’s practice of baptizing infants before they developed the maturity and volition to embrace Christ from the will of their own hearts. Christians are “cheated” by the loss of that opportunity of freely giving oneself in baptism, he later wrote.

This man, Menno Simons, would follow his discomfiting scrutiny of holy writ all the way out of the priesthood and into that same forbidden sect. His preeminence in the Anabaptist movement after its disastrous Münster rebellion — and particularly his pacifistic orientation — eventually ennobled him as the founder as well as the namesake of the Mennonites, a term that in Menno Simons’s own lifetime became all but synonymous for Dutch Anabaptism.

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1422: Jan Zelivsky, Hussite defenestrator

Add comment March 9th, 2015 Headsman

Radical Hussite Jan Želivský was beheaded on this date in 1422.


1952 memorial plaque of Zelivsky in Prague

Zelivsky (English Wikipedia entry | Czech), a priest, emerges in the 1410s as a fiery populist orator at Prague’s Church of Our Lady of the Snows.

After the treacherous capture and execution of Jan Hus, the Hussite movement split between radical and moderate factions. The firebrand Zelivsky became the chief voice of the lower-class, radical Hussites and led the dramatic Defenestration of Prague wherein a Hussite mob pitched several Catholic city ministers out the window of the Prague town hall — triggering a revolution and 15 years of war.

Over the ensuing year, Zelivsky came to dominate politics in Prague. But he had to struggle for his power against both the external threat of Hapsburg armies, and the internal rivalry of moderate Hussites — and these factions did not scruple to deploy the executioner for mastery of Prague.

Zelivsky in the summer of 1421 mounted a coup against moderate Hussites who were negotiating with the Catholic nobility, and even executed some of those movement apostates. But power was wrested away from him in the ensuing months and he was arrested by surprise at a town meeting and secretly put to death.

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1684: John Dick, Covenanter

Add comment March 5th, 2015 Headsman

Covenanter John Dick was hanged at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh on this date in 1684. He had been condemned for rebellion just the day before.

This divinity student had been due to swing the previous September, but broke out of Canongate Tolbooth with 24 others. Upon his re-arrest, the existing sentence was simply reinstated by the judges; Dick had only a single night between that sentence and his execution.

From the time the Protestant Reformation had launched 160-odd years prior to Dick’s death, the customary prerogative of the condemned to make a rostrum of the scaffold had become contested territory. Where once condemned thieves and murderers would make a last reconciliation with their fellows, now heretics made of their own deaths blazing confessional placards by seizing the language of martyrdom. (Paul Friedland addresses this phenomenon as part of the evolution of the execution “spectacle” in his excellent asdfaf. We previously interviewed Friedland here.)

Scottish Covenanters too had this tradition — and likewise the authorities that put them to death the tradition of silencing the wrong message. All the more true given the intense partisan-religious alignments on the eve of the Glorious Revolution; the Whig party name derives from the Whiggamores — Covenanter raiders, whose association was meant to smear that faction.*

Dick, according to a friend visited him in jail on the day of his hanging, was asked if he would pray at his gallows. “Yes, if ye permitt [sic] me,” he replied.

“You must not reflect upon authority in your prayers, so as there may be no offence taken,” one of Dick’s gaolers replied.

“I will pray no limited prayers; I will pray as Christ has taught me.”

Upon this response, there was a debate among Dick’s keepers. “Some were for suffering him to pray, and stopping him if he pleased them not,” our observer recorded, “but that was not thought fit, so he prayed none there [at the gallows].”

Although Dick had to be circumspect at his hanging, his fellow Presbyterians’ alignment with the soon-to-be-triumphant side in the Glorious Revolution would soon make Covenanter martyrologies a hot publication.

The 1714 A Cloud of Witnesses for the Prerogative of Jesus Christ, or The Last Speeches and Testimonies of Those Who Have Suffered for the Truth in Scotland since 1680 celebrates dozens of Presbyterian martyrs.


Illustration of Covenanter punishments (not Dick’s specifically) from A Cloud of Witnesses.

In Dick’s entry, we have a firm of heart last letter to his father penned on the morning of the devout youth’s execution.

Dear Sir, —

This hath been one of the pleasantest nights I have had in my lifetime. The competition is only betwixt it and that I got eleven years ago at Nesbit in Northumberland, where and when, in a barley ridge upon the Saturday’s night and Sabbath morning before the last communion I did partake of in Ford Church, the Lord firmly laid the foundation-stone of grace in my heart, by making me with my whole soul close with Him upon His own terms, that is, to take Him to be my King, Priest, and Prophet, yea, to be my all in all ; to renounce my own righteousness, which at best is but rotten rags, and to rest upon His righteousness alone for salvation; as also, to give myself entirely, without reserve, in soul, body, heart, affections, and the whole faculties of my soul and powers of my body, to be by Him disposed at His pleasure for the advancement of His glory, and the upbuilding of my own soul, and the souls of others; inserting this clause (being conscious to myself of great infirmity) that the fountain of free grace and love should stand open for me so long, and so oft as my case should call for it.

This my transaction with my ^whole soul, without the least ground of suspicion of the want of sincerity, which I found had been amissing in endeavours of that nature formerly, now my blessed Lord helped me to, or rather made in me, and solemnised that night and morning ere I came off that ridge.

I confirmed it no less than ten or twelve times, and the oftener I reiterated, the gale continued so fresh and vigorous, that I was forced to cry, Hold, Lord, for the sherd is like to burst: so that I hope my dearest Lord is now a-coming, and that the hands of Zerubbabel, who hath laid this foundation, is now about to finish it ; and, indeed, He is building very fast, for which my soul blesseth Him, desiring you may join with me in so necessary a work.

I hope, ere long, the copestone shall be put on, the result of all which shall be praises and shouting to Him that sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb throughout all the ages of eternity, of long-lasting eternity.

This, with my earnest prayers while in the body, that the Lord would help you to mind His glory, and your own soul’s eternal welfare, is all the legacy you can expect from him who is both,

Your affectionate son and Christ’s prisoner,

John Dick.

P.S. — I hope, ere I come home, to get another sight of you. Let none see this till I be in my grave. The Lord gave me to you freely, so I entreat you, be frank in giving me to Him again, and the more free this be, the less cause you shall have to repent.

* “Tories” comes from a word for an Irish (and Catholic) outlaw, and was conferred by the Whigs as a reciprocal calumny. It is not accidental that each term throws a non-English shade.

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1401: William Sawtre, Lollard heretic

March 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1401, Lollard priest William Sawtre(y) was burned at Smithfield for heresy — the first known heresy execution in England.

The highlight of late 14th century English literature, Piers Plowman, was a great favorite of Lollards. Though this lengthy allegorical poem is not itself a Lollard text, it spawned a Piers Plowman tradition with many spinoffs that are overtly Wycliffite.

Witness Wycliffe, who told them the truth;
For in good nature he greatly warned
To mend their wickedness and sinful works.
Who these sorry men damned his soul
And overall lolled him with heretics’ works!

-Piers Plowman’s Creed*

Sawtre was a follower of John Wycliffe, the Biblical translator and church reformer 16 years dead as we lay our scene.

Wycliffe anticipated much of Luther’s later critique of the Catholic Church. His call to study Scripture directly without the intercession of doctors in Rome touched a spiritual thirst; his summons to apostolic poverty for the wealthy vicars of Christ was a message with a ready audience.

“From about 1390 to 1425, we hear of the Lollards in all directions,” notes this public domain history, “so that the contemporary chronicler was ale to say that of every two men found on the roads, one was sure to be a Lollard.”

Lollardy did not immediately manifest as an outlaw movement; it had many adherents among England’s elites and even the royal household. Although the papacy had declared various Wycliffe doctrines heretical in that prelate’s time, England had shown little appetite for calling an Inquisition — a step that would project papal authority into the kingdom.**

But with a ferocious ecclesiastical pushback and a change in the occupancy of the throne,† the English state gradually shifted over the course of the 1390s and 1400s towards recognizing Wycliffe’s principles as heresy — and towards treating that heresy into a capital crime. Through spectacles like Sawtre’s burning, Lollards were gradually made to understand that the price of their scruples might run all the way to martyrdom.

This was novel territory for English jurisprudence, and part of a centuries-long European transition towards treating doctrinal dispute as capital crime. There are only a bare handful of alleged quasi-precedents in English history, sketchily documented — like the unnamed apostate deacon burnt to ashes for Judaizing. It was only as late as William Sawtre that Old Blighty clearly established the practice and legal machinery for putting men and women to death for heresy.

Many Lollards capitulated as they came under pressure. This was true of our man Sawtre, a humble parish vicar. When put to questioning by the bishop in 1399, Sawtre initially recanted his unorthodox skepticism as to the transubstantiation of communion bread into Christ’s own literal body — a doctrinal mystery that would be a tougher and tougher sell to dissidents yet to come.

But upon moving from Lynn to London where he served at St. Osyth’s, Sawtre relapsed — and some stirring moved his soul to vindicate himself in the face of mortal peril.

Charged before Parliament, Sawtre now defended his heresies under close questioning by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel. Arundel was even then pressuring this same Parliament for a statute, which he did indeed soon receive — one with the ominous title De Heretico Comburendo, at last elevating heresy to a death penalty offense and making the bishops themselves the decisive arbiters on the matter. It is overtly and all-but-explicitly aimed at the Lollards.

divers false and perverse people of a certain new sect, of the faith of the sacraments of the church, and the authority of the same damnably thinking and against the law of God and of the Church usurping the office of preaching, do perversely and maliciously in divers places within the said realm, under the color of dissembled holiness, preach and teach these days openly and privily divers new doctrines, and wicked heretical and erroneous opinions contrary to the same faith and blessed determinations of the Holy Church, and of such sect and wicked doctrine and opinions they make unlawful conventicles and confederacies, they hold and exercise schools, they make and write books, they do wickedly instruct and inform people, and as such they may excite and stir them to sedition and insurrection, and make great strife and division among the people, and other enormities horrible to be heard daily do perpetrate and commit subversion of the said catholic faith and doctrine of the Holy Church …

the diocesans of the said realm cannot by their jurisdiction spiritual, without aid of the said royal majesty, sufficiently correct the said false and perverse people, nor refrain their malice, because the said false and perverse people do go from diocese to diocese and will not appear before the said diocesans…

[let] none within the said realm or any other dominions subject to his Roval Majesty, presume to preach openly or privily, without the license of the diocesan of the same place first required and obtained, curates in their own churches and persons hitherto privileged, and other of the Canon Law granted, only except; nor that none from henceforth anything preach, hold, teach, or instruct openly or privily, or make or write any book contrary to the catholic faith or determination of the Holy Church, nor of such sect and wicked doctrines and opinions shall make any conventicles, or in any wise hold or exercise schools; and also [let] none from henceforth in any wise favor such preacher or maker of any such and like conventicles, or persons holding or exercising schools, or making or writing such books, or so teaching, informing, or exciting the people, nor any of them maintain or in any wise sustain, and that all and singular having such books or any writings of such wicked doctrine and opinions, shall really with effect deliver or cause to be delivered all such books and writings to the diocesan of the same place within forty days from the time of the proclamation of this ordinance and statute.

Any Lollard not so complying could be arrested on the say-so of the diocesan bishop and tried for the offending heterodoxy; if convicted, the clergy was then empowered to hand the unfortunate fellow over to the civil authorities who were obliged to carry out an execution without any further inquiry or say-so. Judge, jury, and (virtually) executioner … the same as the guy waiting for you in the confessional.

[I]f any person … do refuse duly to abjure, or by the diocesan of the same place or his commissaries, after the abjuration made by the same person be pronounced relapsed, so that according to the holy canons he ought to be left to the secular court … [then] after such sentence promulgate shall receive, and them before the people in an high place cause to be burnt, that such punishment may strike fear into the minds of others, whereby, nosuch wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions, nor their authors … be sustained or in any way suffered.

With such wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions afoot Sawtre was not suffered to live even the enactment of the law that killed him: De Heretico Comburendo was passed only on March 10, but Sawtre was eight days’ dead by that point. It’s a bit unclear how the sentence was legally effected, but it would seemingly have proceeded under canon, not civil, law.

Both the law and the execution were great victories for the Church. “The king and the archbishop hurried to burn their victim to show that they could send a heretic to the stake whenever they wished, without relying on statute” Leonard Williams Levy writes. “Parliament could neither give nor take the authority to burn a heretic. If the scepter supported the miter, canon law prevailed.”

Be that as it may, the victims of the Lollard-burning period were not nearly so numerous as the chilling language of De Heretico Comburendo might lead one to anticipate. The next Lollard to go to the stake was John Badby in 1410; two merchants were executed in 1415, and the Lollard rebel John Oldcastle was burnt “gallows and all” in 1417. Another handful suffered in the 1420s. It’s thought that about 50 people overall (Lollards and otherwise) were executed as heretics from the enactment of De Heretico Comburendo until Henry VIII broke with Rome 133 years later — an occasion that made heresy-hunting a whole different animal.

* My artless rendering from the Middle English version given in D.A. Lawton in “Lollardy and the ‘Piers Plowman’ Tradition”, The Modern Language Review, Oct. 1981.

** Despite overall caution about the authority of Rome onto Albion’s soil, the English had no overall principled rejection of Inquisitors as such: they convoked such a tribunal to deal with Joan of Arc.

† The political situation in the realm was also been a factor: the usurper Henry IV had taken the crown only in 1399 by deposing, and later murdering, King Richard II. One readily supposes Henry’s keen interest in shoring up the loyalty of the church and keeping tabs on itinerant rabble-rousers, the latter of whom appear to have disproportionately skewed towards Richard’s faction. (All those heretics in the king’s household were in Richard’s household.)

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1937: Desta Damtew, Haile Selassie’s son

Add comment February 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Ethiopian prince Desta Damtew — the son-in-law of Emperor Haile Selassie — was captured by the Italian troops occupying his country, and summarily executed.

An aristocrat who married Selassie’s eldest daughter, the Ras* Desta Damtew (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) became governor of the southern Sidamo Province upon his father-in-law’s ascent to the Ethiopian throne in 1930.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it committed a disproportionate quantity of its forces to the northern reaches of its target. Consequently, resistance was stronger in the south — and Ras Desta was one of its chiefs. In January 1936 he led Ethipoian forces at the Battle of Ganale Doria.

Though the two sides had forces of similar sizes, Italy’s was the mechanized, industrial army — and the Ras was routed by Gen. Rodolfo Graziani. It was a milepost for Graziani on his way to lasting infamy in Ethiopia as the conquered realm’s brutal Viceroy for 1937. (He was recalled at year’s end.) Graziani vowed that Italy would dominate Ethiopia “at whatever cost” and threatened “extreme severity towards anyone who resisted.”

On February 19, 1937 — Yekatit 12 by the Ethiopian calendar — two ethnic Eritreans expressed their resistance by pelting Graziani with grenades. He had shown his viceregal person at a hearts-and-minds almsgiving, and having been received with such cordiality, he returned immediately to the Extreme Severity plan.

While doctors dug shrapnel out of Graziani, somehow saving his life, an aide named Guido Cortese condemned up to 30,000** humans to punitive death with a dread order:

Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.

For the next several days, Italian forces delivered a punitive rampage to their new subjects, claiming up to 30,000 lives.**

Desta Damtew, who had been lucky to flee the battlefield slaughter after Ganale Doria, was not directly a casualty off this three days’ bloodbath, but when he was captured in the bush along with fellow insurgent commander Beyene Merid, no-quarter treatment was a given. Both men were immediately shot.

The Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey penned a poetic eulogy for our man:

The flow’r of a nation’s strength
Had thrown their valour and their might
Against the charging hordes of death
In history’s most unequal fight!
One man remained — the last of them —
To stand for Ethiopia:
All else surrendered, died or fled
But, he, the lion-hearted-Ras Desta.

Graziani, Italian butcher
Had valiant Desta quickly shot,
To seal his lips and tie his hands
In fear of what he called a plot.
With death of such a noble man,
A reign has passed to history;
But time will bring to us again
More men to fight for victory.

Ras Desta left a number of children. One of them, Iskinder Desta, became a Rear Admiral in the Ethiopian navy and was among the officials slaughtered in the Derg’s 1974 “Black Saturday” purge.

* Ras is a title, literally meaning “Head” and akin to “Prince” or “Duke”. Before he was royalty, Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen, and then eventually known as Ras Tafari … hence, rastafarianism.

** According to Ethiopian figures. Italy’s numbers put the post-Yekatit 12 casualties “merely” in the hundreds.

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1942: Matvey Kuzmin, modern-day Ivan Susanin

Add comment February 14th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1942, German troops in Russia’s Pskov Oblast summarily executed 83-year-old peasant Matvey Kuzmin for leading them into an ambush.

World War II’s real-life Ivan Susanin was conscripted as a guide for the occupying Wehrmacht intending to approach a Soviet position at the village of Makino.

Kuzmin cunningly sent his son ahead to Malkino to alert his countrymen of the attack while guiding the Germans circuitously. By the time Kuzmin et al reached the outskirts, a Soviet ambush was waiting for them.

An enraged German officer shot Kuzmin during the ensuing firefight.

Since Kuzmin’s feat of resistance was not at all anonymous, he was transmuted into a parable of national heroism almost immediately. Kuzmin was posthumously honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union; the Moscow visitor to this day can behold his statuary’s valorous stance at the Partizanskaya metro station, opposite the martyred guerrilla Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.

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1527: Georg Wagner

Add comment February 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1527, apostate Catholic priest Georg Wagner went to the stake in Munich.

Called “Carpentarius”, Wagner’s renounced a comfortable pastorship in Emmeringen, espousing the unacceptable tenets that his office was not empowered by Scripture to forgive sins, nor to transubstantiate bread and wine into Christ’s own body, nor to perform baptism on infants. He’s claimed as a martyr both by Anabaptists and Lutherans.

Wagner was a worthy enough man in his time and place that the propaganda coup of his defection drew urgent efforts at re-converting him by his former co-religionists — and even, allegedly, the Duke of Bavaria himself. He spurned them all, insisting only “that, as long as I can open my mouth” in the fires that would devour him, “I will confess the name of Jesus Christ.”

The Martyrs Mirror account of Wagner’s martyrdom credits God with, hours after the execution, smiting dead the sheriff who brought Wagner to the pyre.

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